Self-Pub Like a Pro: Cover Artists Tell All, Part One

Croco Designs logoSelf-publishing is a brave new world, and we're here to help you navigate it with our monthly column, Self-Pub Like a Pro. This month we're tackling the ever-important cover design. Covers are such a big deal we're bringing you the insight of not one, but two, accomplished cover artists. Today with us is Frauke Spanuth, owner and creative director for Croco Designs. We hope you enjoy all Frauke has to say, and come back next week for part two! 


What should a self-published author keep in mind when working with a cover artist?

As a self-published author you are also in charge of all tasks a publisher usually takes care of. You have to keep a publication schedule as well as a budget in mind, so availability and pricing may be most important for you. But please keep in mind that if a cover is poorly executed, people may also think your book is of poor quality. It’s said that one should not judge a book by its cover, but very often people still do.  

When you then finally get to work with the artist on your cover, please accept them as the professionals they are and trust them to have your best interest at heart. Your book is your baby and you put endless hours of work, blood and tears into it, and it is worthy of the best cover there is. We know that. So don’t get mad at us when we say that the scene you suggested for the cover may look too crowded or won’t work as you think it would. Less is in this case more. An attractive cover “flows”; it is clean and simple in appearance. The fonts don’t compete with the image for space, but both present a united front, so it appears that one can’t live without the other.

What's the most important thing a cover has to do? Convey what the story is about? Catch the reader’s eye?

Covers must give hints about the genre and content of the book to attract the targeted readership and in the best case go one step beyond it by attracting readers who usually don’t belong to that audience. The perfect cover does the story justice but at the same time also fulfills its commercial (“attention-grabbing”) aspect so it is not bypassed.

How has the cover design market changed since e-books, and the thumbnail cover, became so popular?

Self-published e-books especially became a huge game changer as their covers did not have to pass the approval of an art department, editors, marketing and sales teams, as well as book buyers to make it on the shelf in the end. Covers didn’t get reinvented, but innovative cover designs now have a greater chance to join the ranks, and designers can stray from old beaten paths. For me bookshelves have become more colorful thanks to e-books. And, well, if a cover is not working, it can be changed overnight instead of having to wait for a reprint.

Each genre has certain cover cues that signal to a reader what the book is about. How do you play with this concept when designing? Do you work to avoid clichés? Or embrace them?

Some might think clichéd covers are a bad thing. They are not.

Don’t get me wrong, I’d always prefer to create my own new unique look for each cover I design (i.e. set a new cover trend instead of imitating it), but as I mentioned before a cover also has to fulfill a commercial aspect.

If the hooded guy with glowing sword worked for a fantasy author on the author’s earlier books, then there’s no real reason to change this successful concept. I think it is a popular marketing strategy to design new covers to look like covers of bestselling books, simply because that look was so successful. If readers enjoyed Fifty Shades of Grey or the Crossfire books, for example, and now want to read books of a similar nature, they will look for and usually be attracted by the same types of covers.

That said, new looks also have their own advantage as they don’t follow the masses but set themselves apart from it. So the chance to stand out of the crowd and be noticed is higher. They especially feed a reader’s craving for another type of story, for something new and not just like any other romance or fantasy novel out there.

I don’t have sales numbers to back up and compare with any of my statements. I just want to say that a clichéd cover is not usually something that needs to be avoided at all cost. Plus there are only so many different ways to portray a couple on a romance novel cover.

Give us some examples of your favorite covers, and tell us why they're your favorites.

What can I say? I love crocodiles, and it doesn’t often happen that I have the chance to add one to a cover. I’m eternally grateful to the Carina Press team for assigning me this particular cover.

Below is another cover I recently designed. This book will go on sale May 1, when Brenda Novak’s annual Online Auction for Diabetes Research takes place, and I hope that you all pick up a copy. All proceeds will go to diabetes research.

Beyond that it is really hard to settle on my favorite covers out of those I’ve designed. I’m in love with them all! Maybe you can tell me what your favorite is and why. Here’s a small selection to choose from:

I’m also in love with a lot of covers from other artists, way too many to list them all.

However, I’m a huge fan of one cover artist in particular. His name is Dan Dos Santos and his style is so special you know just from looking at one of his covers that he is the genius behind them. He designs, for example, the covers of the books in the Mercedes Thompson and Alpha and Omega series by Patricia Briggs.

Give us a few pointers on what authors should want in their covers, i.e., clear font, people who look like people, etc.?

Ideally, covers should still look appealing at thumbnail sizes because that’s the size readers will see when browsing through the book section of an online store. Of course, font size is important, so you can easily identify either title or author name, or both in the best case. But also the cover image should still work, i.e., give clues about the genre and so on at that small size.

As a lot of e-readers don’t support full color, or covers may be advertised in black-and-white ads, it can never hurt that it also looks good in grayscale mode.

If you plan to publish a series, you have to think about a series branding that makes it easy for readers to know just from looking at the covers that they are part of the same series. On the other hand they also shouldn’t look too much alike as that may deter people from picking up the next installment because they assume they know or have read the book, i.e., they don’t recognize it as a new title.

Erotic Romance covers can be sexy without being too revealing. You may say ‘sex sells’, but online stores will add an adult filter if it is too steamy. I’ve also heard of stores pulling books or excluding them from sale because the covers were too explicit.

We hope you enjoyed Frauke's illuminating cover lesson! To learn more about her work, visit Croco Designs. And be sure to stop back next week as we take a further look at covers, so we can all learn how to Self-Pub Like a Pro!